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Black Lives Matter: The White Canonisation of Black Protest Songs

The songs and artists that have been sanitised for a white narrative.

By Planet Slop
Fri 05 June, 2020

Scrolling through social media in the days since George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests has predictably been rife with emotion, from the pride at seeing young people take a stand, to dismay at people who are either unable or unwilling to understand what is happening.

The Facebook page for soul icon Sam Cooke posted a Black Lives Matter image. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, aside from being a black man, Cooke was a civil rights activist who wrote A Change Is Gonna Come, one of the most explicit and defining anthems of the entire civil rights movement. You would therefore assume that people claiming to be fans of Sam Cooke would support Black Lives Matter.

But, no.

An overwhelming number of comments from white “fans” underneath the post reacted negatively to the image, and the tediously tone deaf “All lives matter” response filled the thread.

Now, I’m a pasty white guy. Much of what I have learnt has either been through these records or the plight of those who made them. They were a gate to my own education and enlightenment on these issues, one that continues to develop each passing day. It was precisely why they were written. So it is astonishing to me that white people could listen to these songs for decades, apparently without listening to the lyrics.

There is a meme going around at the moment that reads “Love black people the way you love black culture“. It is astonishing that anybody could separate the two.

We have wanted to do something to reflect what is happening. But we felt it is not our place to try to lead a conversation like this. We are allies, and our words are in support, so we absolutely cannot drown out the voices of colour that must be listened to.

As fans of music, film, television, literature, art and popular culture, it is impossible to ignore the impact of black culture on our lives. There really isn’t any such thing as “white music”. As the great Chuck D said when answering the critics who said Public Enemy, and hip hop generally, has no place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; “Remember, we all come from the damn blues.”

Racial issues in the music industry are rife. The white industry has always pillaged from black artists. Not just by dressing their music up in a white face, but the industry, for decades, has taken advantage of young, inexperienced black artists by swindling them out of copyrights and royalties with unfair contracts

Recently, Warner Music pledged $100 million to combat music industry racism, but you have to wonder if they’ve sorted out their own house. No doubt Warner, like all the majors, still hold many of these copyrights – so, what? If they’re going to act like they’re not complicit in this system and make such a grand public gesture, are they going to give them back too?

Reading the comments on Sam Cooke’s Facebook page hit home just how much the white establishment has effectively canonised black music – even songs of black protest – for its own narrative, one that is safe and, for all intents and purposes, easy listening.

We casually listen to these songs on Smooth Radio as if they’re nothing but cutesy love songs from a by-gone era. To the degree where the meaning of these artists and their work has been lost on too many people.

Therefore, we decided to highlight some of the anthems and musical figures of black protest that the white establishment have taken control of in the wider vernacular. There are some that haven’t lost their meaning totally, but have perhaps been sanitised, and it is worth remembering the reality of where these songs came from.

On a personal note, we might be nothing but a humble little blog – a hobby, really. If we had any real ambition, we would post more often and probably even go around with a collection plate begging for money from people who are struggling themselves.

But we have always strived to diversify Liverpool arts, and we have forced these conversations with people unwilling to have them. We’re not trying to save the world. That’s Bono’s job. But if we can get a few local behemoths to change their outlooks – and we’re happy to say that we have done that a couple of times – then we have at least done something.

Is it enough? No. It’s never enough. And that’s why you don’t stop. That’s why you keep forcing people to confront and acknowledge their privilege.

More importantly, if you’re making grand statements on social media, retweeting images and stories, replacing your profile picture with a black square – then don’t forget to put your money where your mouth is, donate and sign petitions.

There are far too many organisations to list here, but you can click here for an exhaustive list of 115 organisations you can donate to in the US. For the UK, you can click here for an open Google document with an ever-growing list of charities and black-led organisations.

Bayard Rustin: The Gay Man Behind the March on Washington

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come [1964]

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Let’s start with the song and the man who sparked this piece and move forward.

Obviously Sam Cooke was far from the first artist to speak of civil rights and black power, but A Change Is Gonna Come became synonymous with civil rights movement of the 1960’s

Most of Sam’s material was more commercial sounding. He sang about teenage love and lonely Saturday nights. Yet he had dabbled in heavier matters in more subtle ways. Most notable of those was Chain Gang, which celebrated incarcerated African-American men and became his second biggest selling single.

Three years on from Chain Gang, he had become enamoured with Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and began performing it in concert. The first line in particular spoke to his experiences as a black man still being patronised and called “boy” in his 30s; “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”

Cooke’s biographer Daniel Wolff has said that Sam felt like he should have written it, and he set himself the challenge of writing a black response to Dylan’s song. If in 1960 he could mention a chain gang and get a hit out of it, he now felt he could write a song that was explicitly about civil rights and still get a hit out of it. The result is often seen as soul music’s first direct engagement with black politics. The achievement wasn’t lost on Cooke himself, telling friend and contemporary Bobby Womack that it signalled a turning point in his life.

It was inspired by several events in Cooke‘s life, especially encounters he’d had on tour in the south. One particular event seemed to be a catalyst.

In Louisiana, he made a reservation at a Holiday Inn. When he arrived, the clerk nervously told him there were no vacancies. Cooke saw red and refused to leave, his wife Barbara trying to calm him by telling him “They’ll kill you.” Tragically – given the events that would take place 14 months later – Sam responded “They ain’t gonna kill me, because I’m Sam Cooke.” When they were convinced to leave, they drove to a motel, where police arrested them for disturbing the peace at the Holiday Inn.

Perhaps the most profound verse relates to pleas to the establishment and those of us with greater privilege; “Then I go to my brother/And I say brother help me please/But he winds up knockin’ me/Back down on my knees”. It was this verse that came to mind when seeing supposed white fans of Cooke’s commenting “All lives matter” on his page’s aforementioned Black Lives Matter post. What is that outlook if not knocking people down to their knees when they are asking for help?

Sam would never see the song become the iconic anthem it is today. He was murdered on 11th December 1964. 11 days later, A Change is Gonna Come was released as the B-side to Shake. That Cooke died so soon after the song was recorded means that we never got to see how he would progress in this area. Perhaps this gives license to some of his white fans to gloss over it a little, and to pretend that by now the things he was singing about are firmly in the past.

Sam & Dave: Soul Man [1967]

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Hey, it’s just about soul music, right?

Wrong.

It’s about being a soul man, and all of the connotations of that.

Soul Man was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, before the former launched his own successful solo career. Hayes was directly inspired to write the song after watching news footage of the 12th Street riot in Detroit in July 1967.

Like most riots, this was kicked off by a seemingly small incident that was part of a larger pattern. According to Max Arthur Herman’s book Fighting in the Streets: Ethnic Succession and Urban Unrest in Twentieth Century America, 12th Street was Ground Zero for harassment by police, stopping black youths at random, and addressing them with racial epithets. Injury and death were not uncommon.

The actual incident that sparked the riot was a raid on an unlicensed after hours drinking club. These began during prohibition, but had continued as a safe haven for the black population of Detroit in the decades since.

Watching the news back in Memphis, Hayes noticed that black residents had marked buildings that housed black owned businesses and institutions with the word “soul”. Hayes recounted in the 1997 book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records that the song was “a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions. It’s almost a tune kind of like boasting, ‘I’m a soul man.’ It’s a pride thing.”

The “soul” here is what soul always is – the feeling, the culture. Behaviour, attitude, lifestyle, food, music. In that respect, Sam and Dave are practically shouting with pride, “I’m a black man”.

All of this makes the fact that uber right wing blowhard Ted Nugent has covered the song extremely galling.

Aretha Franklin: Respect [1967]

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Before 1967, Aretha Franklin’s career was floundering. She was signed to Atlantic, who watched the explosion of southern soul and sent her to Memphis with producer Jerry Wexler. The sessions produced a string of defining albums, and ensured Franklin’s position as the undisputed Queen of Soul.

Of all the songs to come out of those sessions, Respect has undoubtedly been the most enduring.

Originally written and recorded by Otis Redding a couple of years prior, Respect was ostensibly a song about a man wanting his woman to respect him when he gets home from work. Redding was pleading, begging even. He was on his knees “Pleeeeease, give me some respect”.

Aretha flipped it with a whole new meaning. Not just as a person of colour, but as a black woman. Is she singing to her man, or the white man, who label black women with insulting, negative stereotypes including the sexually voracious “Jezebel”, the “Welfare queen” or the “Angry black woman”?

So, is it more fondly remembered than Redding’s original because it’s a superior arrangement and vocal? That’s part of it, no doubt. But deeper than that is how it resonates. As Indiana University Professor Portia Maultsby told the BBC in 2005; “The larger African-American community, but particularly women, related to Aretha’s version with the conviction with which she is demanding that her partner respects her.”

People were no longer asking for change, they were demanding it. And Aretha has literally spelt it out for you; we want R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

This was no accident. Wexler explained as much to Rolling Stone in 2010, Respect had the biggest impact “with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.”

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On [1971]

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What’s Going On not only changed the trajectory of Marvin Gaye’s career, but the entire Motown machine.

Motown has its own place in the story of black America. The popular conception about their golden period is that they weren’t political, but this isn’t strictly true. There had been a smattering of politically-driven releases, most notably a spoken word LP of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who, despite what right wing media tries to tell you today, was not a much loved figure or accepted by the white establishment for his non-violent protests – hence why they kept arresting him and murdered him).

But really, Motown’s big political statement was existing at all. This was America’s biggest black owned business, and for a number of years in the 60s, the most successful record label in the country. They operated out of a tiny house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Arranger Paul Riser describes this in the 2019 documentary Hitsville USA: The Making of Motown by simply stating “You don’t get more ‘hood than that.” Surely, in a capitalist world, this in itself was a social-political statement?

But by the end of the decade, as the momentum of the civil rights movement continued, Motown was out of step with black America, choosing to have The Temptations and The Supremes record albums of Broadway favourites instead of addressing the world around them. This seemed especially damning given that the 12th Street Riot had happened right on their doorstep in 1967.

There was some response the following year. The Temptations went psychedelic with tracks like Cloud Nine and Ball of Confusion. The Supremes released Love Child, sporting afros and street clothes as opposed to their iconic gowns. Edwin Starr had a hit with War. But none of them had the impact of What’s Going On

In truth, it is one of the songs on the list where the meaning is so explicit that it is unlikely to be totally lost. However, more often than not it is used as an example of opposition to the Vietnam War. Of course, this is far too simple.

It is true that the song’s initial composer, Obie Benson of the Four Tops, was inspired by police brutality and violence during an anti-war protest. Yet when Gaye began collaborating on the writing, he brought his own perspective to it, one that came much more from the street than Vietnam.

Gaye’s personal turning point was the 1965 Watts Riots, the worst civil unrest in Los Angeles until the 1992 Rodney King protests. It began when Marquette Frye, an African-American man driving his mother’s Buick, was pulled over for alleged reckless driving. The car’s passenger alerted Frye’s mother, Rena Price, who made her way to the scene and scolded her son.

However, the situation escalated. An officer shoved Price, who was pregnant at the time and retaliated. Frye was hit, and one of the officers pulled out a shotgun. Members of the community heard of the fracas and angry mobs formed, leading to six days of unrest that transformed 46 square miles of Los Angeles into a battle zone.

This, the aforementioned 12th Street Riots that took place in Detroit itself just two years later, and his brother’s experiences in Vietnam, all convinced Gaye to drop his sex symbol, pin up image. He had to say his piece – and this is significant, because there is no question mark in the title. It’s a statement. Marvin isn’t asking “What’s going on?” He’s telling you.

Motown founder Berry Gordy was dead against it, telling him that he was “taking things too far” and that the song was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”. Gaye fought hard against his boss by going on strike until Gordy relented. When released, the song and subsequent album broke records for the company, proving that Gaye had captured the zeitgeist. Gordy finally recognised what was happening, and allowed more politically edged material to be released by the company.

Diversity is the Biggest Issue in the Liverpool Music Scene

The Real Thing: Liverpool 8 Medley [1977]

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You to me are everything/The sweetest song that I could sing/Oh, baby!

What a nice, breezy little ditty. You To Me Are Everything is such an authentic soul hit that it is easy to forget that The Real Thing hailed not from Philadelphia, but Toxteth.

This is a slightly different entry into the list, as many of the songs of black protest coming out of America have entered the popular vernacular in some sense, even if they have been sanitised or skewered.

Here, we’re talking about ourselves. Liverpool occasionally likes to think it is more left wing than it really is. But we have never really confronted our own past, most importantly our central role in the slave trade. Even our streets are still named after key figures in the slave trade; Bold Street (Jonas Bold), Parr Street (Thomas Parr), Penny Lane (James Penny), Sir Thomas Street (Thomas Johnson), Gladstone Road (John Gladstone), Earle Street (John Earle). Most of us nonchalantly walk through these streets regularly, named in tribute to one of the most disgusting, and racist, chapters in our history.

Truly, it is a city built on racism.

Culturally, we are a city that proudly celebrates every mid-level success we’ve ever had. Providing they are white. The list of The Real Thing’s achievements far outweighs those of The Coral or any other mediocre indie band you care to mention. They are, in fact, the second most successful group to come out of the city. They even scored hits in America. More importantly, beyond that one enduring classic, they have more material that remains relevant over four decades later.

Written before You To Me Are Everything, the Liverpool 8 Medley showed up on their 1977 LP 4 From 8, and is probably the best example of this, especially its second movement, Children of the Ghetto.

The now sadly deceased group member Eddy Amoo told The Guardian in 2011; “We were empowered from America, by people like Curtis Mayfield and by What’s Goin’ On. I was about 26 when Shaft came out, and at last we had a real black hero – not just a passive idol, but someone who was off the street and could make a difference.

In Everything: The Story of The Real Thing, the 2020 documentary on the band, they discussed their controversial decision to play in Sun City in the 1980s as guests of David Essex. Their plan, perhaps naively, was to play Children of the Ghetto in protest of the Apartheid regime. Essex wouldn’t allow this protest to continue.

Part of the fall-out from their decision to play Sun City was that their reputation in Liverpool 8 was in tatters. The area had become a safe haven for many fleeing members of the African National Congress, so the move to even go there was shocking.

Children of the Ghetto has existed beyond The Real Thing, having been covered by legendary American artists like Mary J. Blige, Courtney Pine and Phillip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire. It also served as the soundtrack to the Toxteth Riots of 1981. But for their career at large, Children of the Ghetto effectively finished them off.

Eddy Amoo said that it turned them into ghosts. “Why is it, with all that happens in America, that there is no really successful black British band, let alone a political black British band?” he continued to The Guardian. “Yes, there’s Jazzie B, and I like him, good luck to him, but he plays the MTV game and all that, using black girls as soft porn. And yes, I do dare to have this feeling that if we’d put that album out and we came from Chicago it would not have finished our careers. In Britain, it’s different for some reason. It’s…‘oh, they’re OK, they’ll be all right’. It was like that in 1981, and it’s like that now. Why is it that there simply is not a voice in music and the arts for the black British? It’s not racism like the National Front, in your face – no, it’s something bigger, something institutional.”

Bob Marley & The Wailers: Buffalo Soldier [1983]

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Bob Marley has never lost his edge for younger generations – kids in my school certainly went through a Marley phase in the early 2000s that was largely superficial, focussing on the joints and dreadlocks. Almost to the point of minstrelsy. In conversation, it was clear they weren’t listening to his words.

Buffalo Soldier, released posthumously in 1983, remains one of Marley’s most played hits, one that was definitely listened to by the kids I knew.

The titular soldiers were a regiment of African-American soldiers that were established by Congress following the American Civil War. They were continuously confronted with racial prejudice from other regiments, and civilians in the areas where the soldiers were stationed would react to them with violence.

According to Anthony Bogues’ book Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals, Rastafarians in Jamaica identified with the regiment as black men who performed courageously in a white dominated field. And that is the main conceit of the song, black resistance and, to paraphrase another key lyric, the fight for survival.

Despite its jaunty music and singalong chorus, it is probably one of his more overt sermons to white people about confronting our own past. “Stolen from Africa, brought to America/Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”.

But he challenges us also. “If you know your history/Then you would know where you coming from”. Who is he addressing here? His black audience, literally asking to research and understand their own ancestry. His white audience, who continued to expand as his fame grew – pointing us towards facing our own history in slavery and colonialism? Or, most likely, both?

2Pac feat. Talent: Changes [1998]

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Perhaps even more omnipresent than the image of Bob Marley smoking a spliff on the young white boy’s walls growing up was that of a shirtless, tattooed Tupac Shakur. The embodiment of alpha male badassness.

Like Marley, the attraction for many was superficial, and probably fetishised. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D stated in the 2011 documentary Prophets of Rage; “The corporation seized it by the throat, and threw it down the tubes. ‘Gangsta’ became marketable.” Seeing the effect that this image of 2Pac had on my peers, this rings as gospel.

Changes was a posthumous single for 2Pac, and growing up it was probably the song I remember hearing most on the radio. It is easy to see why. The sample from Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is makes it an irresistible earworm, and until 2005’s similarly themed Ghetto Gospel topped the charts, it was his highest entry in the UK at number three.

But, of course the song itself focusses on subjects ranging from the racial connotations of the war on drugs, the treatment of black people by the police and the vicious cycle of the perpetuation of poverty on African American life. The poster that everyone had on their wall suggested that they had some aspirational feeling towards 2Pac’s lifestyle.

But, here, the lifestyle is anything but a boast. This isn’t something that has been chosen. It’s a circumstance that most will never escape. You can go through the song line by line and tick off a multitude of complex issues;

“My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch”

Crime as a means of survival, and the reality of the low income communities, which thanks to an unjust society, is disproportionately filled with black faces.

“Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare!”

The crack epidemic was worse in the black communities, apparently because it was cheaper. It also carried much harsher sentences than the powdered cocaine favoured by the yuppie, white upper classes. But, because of a perception that black people burdened the tax system, it was largely ignored.

There were theories that authorities were actively distributing crack in these communities. This may sound like a crazy conspiracy theory, but lest we forget that such conspiracies against the black population have been proven true.

A generation earlier, the Nixon administration used a similar tactic. Senior advisor John Ehrlichman admitted it outright; “The Nixon campaign of 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies; the anti-war left, and black people.  You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”  

The accusation of distribution is surely the next logical step from what has already been admitted by the Nixon administration?

Changes continues in this way, each new line expanding upon the societal ills that are rife in the community that 2Pac himself grew up in. It is easy to hear these songs and forget the harsh reality of which the artist speaks. To do so does a great disservice to the artist, their work and the plight they are highlighting.

Prince: Balitmore [2015]

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Well, I mean, of course we’re talking about Prince.

Firstly, to acknowledge the city he is associated with; Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered and kicked off the current spate of protests and conversations.

Secondly, Baltimore was directly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray in police custody. Both are namechecked in the song, and Prince went as far as to perform a benefit concert in Baltimore for the latter, asking the audience to wear grey.

This was rare for Prince, who by this point in his life had been a Jehovah’s Witness for nearly two decades, which barred him from publicly acknowledging his acts of charity. As a result of this, it isn’t uncommon to hear Prince used as an example of an artist who didn’t “try to be a politician” from people who wrongly believe that music shouldn’t be political – that artists shouldn’t comment on the world around them in the way that artists always have.

This is far from true, and for much of his career Prince was outspoken about social injustice in songs like Sign “O” The Times and Money Don’t Matter 2 Night, the latter coming complete with a Spike Lee-directed video that was considered overly political by MTV and consisted solely of a poverty-stricken black family, with no shots of the artist. Most controversial was 2004’s Cinnamon Girl, which took America to task for its treatment of Muslims following 9/11.

Baltimore opened Prince’s final album, HitnRun Phase 2. It was his last grand statement, and with the revolution starting in his backyard, it feels all the more appropriate.

 

Once again, you can click here for an exhaustive list of 115 organisations you can donate to in the US. For the UK, you can click here for an open Google document with an ever-growing list of charities and black-led organisations.